Journal Article

The End of the World in Medieval English Religious Drama

Pamela M. King

in Literature and Theology

Volume 26, issue 4, pages 384-399
Published in print December 2012 | ISSN: 0269-1205
Published online October 2012 | e-ISSN: 1477-4623 | DOI:
The End of the World in Medieval English Religious Drama

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This paper focuses on treatments and prophesies of the last things in late medieval English religious drama. It looks at how the end of the York, Coventry, and Towneley Plays illustrate the multi-media revival of lay catechesis that followed the Council of Constance, while reaching back to the major works of fourteenth-century vernacular theology such of The Prick of Conscience, to express in new and imaginative ways the concatenation of the end of one life and the end of all, of general and particular judgement. The scene is set by reference to the York pageant of Doomsday in the context both of its wider material environment as found in contemporary local stained glass, wills and texts, and of civic patronage. The argument goes on to challenge the traditional divide between biblical cycles and morality plays to show how in a number of instances, plays depicting scriptural history were infiltrated by characters—Christ's torturers in the lost Passion Play from New Romney, the Worms of Conscience in the lost Judgement pageant from Coventry, and the devil Tutivillus in the Towneley Judicium—whose reference points lie as much in tropological allegory as in the narratives of the Bible and apocrypha, and draw on the liturgy of the Church and on sacramental theology to make explicit the old aphorism that Christ is recrucified daily. The paper ends with an exploration of the pageant of The Raising of Lazarus, eccentrically located following the Judicium in the Towneley manuscript. In it Lazarus, the moment he has risen, delivers a long speech on life beyond the grave that eclipses the preceding brief narrative of his death and resurrection, confronting the audience with a visual echo—or anticipation—of the dead rising up on the last day. The thrust of all civic dramatic presentations of the end of the world blend in various imaginative ways biblical and apocryphal narrative material with moral allegory, commentary on contemporary social abuses, and personal catechesis, as all the dramatists, following the pressure for renewal of the lay devotional agenda in the period of their production, provoke their audiences into a state of spiritual anxiety in which the apocalyptic vision is personal, participatory, and probably imminent.

Journal Article.  7422 words. 

Subjects: Literature ; Religion and Art, Literature, and Music

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